Skip to main content

Full text of "A Review of Edmund Gosse's "From Shakespeare to Pope""

See other formats


STOP 



Early Journal Content on JSTOR, Free to Anyone in the World 

This article is one of nearly 500,000 scholarly works digitized and made freely available to everyone in 
the world byJSTOR. 

Known as the Early Journal Content, this set of works include research articles, news, letters, and other 
writings published in more than 200 of the oldest leading academic journals. The works date from the 
mid-seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries. 

We encourage people to read and share the Early Journal Content openly and to tell others that this 
resource exists. People may post this content online or redistribute in any way for non-commercial 
purposes. 

Read more about Early Journal Content at http://about.istor.org/participate-istor/individuals/early- 
journal-content . 



JSTOR is a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary source objects. JSTOR helps people 
discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content through a powerful research and teaching 
platform, and preserves this content for future generations. JSTOR is part of ITHAKA, a not-for-profit 
organization that also includes Ithaka S+R and Portico. For more information about JSTOR, please 
contact support@jstor.org. 



Vol. I.] From Shakespeare To Pope. 149 



XI. — A Review of Edmund Gosse's "From Shakespeare To 

Pope." 

By henry E. shepherd, LL. D., 

president of the college of charleston, charleston s. c. 

To the student of English literature from a merely popular 
point of view, this work of Mr. Gosse's, cannot fail to commend 
itself Its mode of treatment is pleasing— the style is lucid, the 
narrative is lightened by the judicious introduction of biographi- 
cal sketches and entertaining reminiscences. Despite its many 
agreeable features, it lacks both the depth and breadth of 
philosophic or scientific investigation, and the critical student 
of our literary evolution, will lay it aside, with a mingled feeling 
of disappointment and regret. The volume contains a series of 
lectures delivered before the Lowell Institute, and the Johns 
Hopkins University, during the season of 1884 and 1885. The 
restraints that are naturally imposed by the presence of popular 
audiences, will no doubt serve in some measure to account for 
the superficial manner of dealing with the subject, which is a 
distinctive characteristic of the work. 

Perhaps no writer of our time is more capable of tracing the 
delicate process of transition from Shakespeare to Pope, than 
the author of these discourses, a reflection which tends only to 
enhance our sense of regret, that so rare an opportunity has not 
been so fully availed of, as the peculiar gifts and attainments of 
the author had induced us to expect. We fail to discover the 
delicate insight, the keen penetration, the complete grasp of the 
subject, which are a conspicuous feature of Mark Pattison's 
studies in our poetry, and we do not consciously exaggerate 
when we say, that in the Prefaces to his editions to Pope, 
Pattison has exhibited the salient features of the transition era, 
more effectively than Mr. Gosse has done, in his series of dis- 
courses upon the same period. We purpose in the present 
paper, a brief criticism of that portion of Mr. Gosse's work, 
which traces the development of the classical style — between 
the death of Shakespeare and the rise of Pope — as well as the 



150 Henry E. Shepherd, [1884-5. 

influence of the classical school upon the literature of our own 
era. The purely biographical features of the volume must be 
passed over, first, from lack of adequate space ; secondly and 
chiefly, because they are so charmingly conceived and grace- 
fully expressed, as to be in no regard obnoxious to criticism. 
If we leave out of consideration also, the description of those 
fitful struggles of departing life which Mr. Gosse has dignified 
with the name of " reaction," the essence of the work, the dis- 
cussion of cause and effect, and that alone directly concerns us 
in the present review, resolves itself mainly, into the first lecture, 
and the closing pages of the last. In introducing his theme, 
Mr. Gosse is disposed to attribute the transition from the crea- 
tive energy and wanton exuberance of Elizabethan days to the 
critical procedures, the scrupulous regard to propriety of dic- 
tion and symmetry that attained their climax under the dispen- 
sation of which Pope was the acknowledged oracle, in the first 
place to that tendency developed by most European literatures 
during the seventeenth century towards structural perfection, 
and in the second, to a conscious and deliberate revolt during 
the first half of the century, against the "hysterical riot," the 
licentiousness and grotesqueness of the preceding era. It is 
perhaps difficult to reconcile these two explanations — one of 
which is general, the other, specific in character. If the transi- 
tion from the unrestrained energy of the Elizabethan age, to the 
artistic and regulative fashion of our classical school, was merely 
one phase of a simultaneous movement of European literatures, 
it must have been undesigned and unconscious ; if it was a 
deliberate reaction against the dominant tendencies of the pre- 
ceding epoch, it assumes the character of an organized artistic 
movement. We note, we think, in Mr. Gosse's work, a disposi- 
tion to insist too rigidly upon the division into periods, a 
tendency in which Mr. G. is by no means alone. However 
convenient or desirable, Xht. periodic division may prove for the 
practical ends of classification and instruction, if carried out to 
its extreme results, it tends to obscure that oneness of spirit, 
that logical continuity, which characterize alike our history and 
our literature, in every phase of their complex life. 

As an illustration of this tendency, it is simply necessary to 
cite the mode in which historians of our language and our litera- 
ture, deal respectively with the age of Elizabeth and the age of 
Anne. The former of these is tersely disposed of as the age of 



Vol. 1.3 From Shakespeare To Pope. 151 

creative power. The latter as the era of critical refinement and 
expansion of our language. As mere facts of philological his- 
tory, these statements are in their essential features, accurate, 
but the inferences that may be drawn fix)m their broadly general- 
ized form, are liable seriously to mislead the immature and un- 
critical student of our speech. They confer upon each of these 
periods a character of exclusiveness, at variance with the reality, 
ignoring for instance, so far as the Elizabethan epoch is con- 
cerned, the important truth that during the first thirty years of 
Elizabeth's reign, the English language underwent a thorough 
re-formation and reconstruction, patient scholars, brilliant 
knights, grave and thoughtful statesmen, even royalty, engag- 
ing with affectionate assiduity in the task of expanding and 
invigorating the unregulated vernacular.' 

The English of Shakespeare received a discipline, not less 
thorough, if less exact, than that of Pope and Addison. It is 
probable that a more searching and scientific investigation of 
our literary history than has thus far been made, would demon- 
strate that every form of literary activity may be found in each 
epoch, some being more conspicuous in certain periods and 
under specific stimulating conditions, but all existing in greater 
or less measure in every phase of our intellectual development. 
Shakespeare, Bacon, and Ben Jonson were contemporaries ; the 
same is true of Addison and De Foe, of Swift and Pope. 
Macaulay, whose style is the supreme outcome of the critical 
school, lived in the same age with Thomas Carlyle, the Titanic 
energy of whose periods would seem to place him among the 
colossal minds that were " cast in the mighty mould " of the 
Elizabethan demigods. We regret too, that Mr. Gosse has 
dealt so sparingly with the complex but most fascinating history 
of the seventeenth century, as a means of elucidating, as well as 
illuminating his subject. It is to be deplored that the zealous 
enthusiasm and discriminating judgment of his " friend," Mr. 
Gardiner, have not been more freely availed of in this respect. 
With all its bewildering intricacy, there is an absorbing interest 
connected with the history of the seventeenth, notably from the 
accession of Charles I, 1625, to the constitutional revolution of 
1688, to which few periods in our annals present a parallel. In 

I See Dr. Drake's Life and Times of Shakespeare, Formation of Elizabethan English, 
Southern Review, October, 187a. Shepherd's History of the English Language, chapter 
lix, page 153. 



152 Henry E. Shepherd, [1884-5. 

view of the increasing light which the scientific study of history- 
is reflecting upon the processes of philology, an obligation that 
philology has not failed gratefully to acknowledge, it is a source 
of peculiar regret, that Mr. Gosse has touched with so tender a 
hand upon the historic issues in course of evolution during the 
period embraced by his literary investigations. It is in the 
records and memoirs of Charles the First's reign, the Common- 
wealth and the Protectorate, that we trace the growth of those 
influences which prepared the way for the advent of the critical 
dispensation, the classical economy of Addison and Pope. Mr. 
Gosse, it seems to us, fails to apprehend the depth, as well the 
significance, of the Puritan movement, and to appreciate imper- 
fectly its impress upon the literary character of the age which 
is the special theme of his researches. We cannot acquiesce 
unreservedly in the view that the classical movement of the 
seventeenth century, was a mere revolt against the "Jacobean 
riot," the wantonness and prodigality of the Elizabethan day. 
We can readily believe with Mr. Gosse, that the movement in 
its inception stages was not sensibly affected by French influ- 
ence, though no one, we suspect, will dispute the existence of 
that influence at a later time, when the example of Boileau, was 
almost omnipotent in England, as in France. Is it not a more 
rational and philosophic solution of the origin of classicism in 
England, during the seventeenth century, to regard it rather as 
the manifestation of the modern spirit in literary development, 
the same spirit whose presence may be distinctly perceived in 
the expansion of physical science and in the wonderful unfolding 
of political consciousness during this same period, than as an 
expression of mere satiety, of rebellion against grotesqueness 
and eccentricity? The writer can distinctly remember that 
when he was a boy of twelve or fourteen, the poetry of Lord 
Byron was regarded with a kind of idolatrous admiration by his 
youthful contemporaries. Since the American civil war, Byron 
seems to have fallen into a strange oblivion with the generation 
which was at the stage of childhood during that "winter of our 
discontent," while almost every school girl of this present era, 
has some acquaintance with " In Memoriam," and "The Death 
of Arthur." Yet this marked change has come over us quietly, 
perhaps unconsciously, we see the result, we did not observe 
the process. It may be at least assumed that it was eflfected in 
accordance with natural law, and that satiety or surfeit was not 



Vol. 1.3 From Shakespeare To Pope. 153 

instrumental in bringing it about. The poetry of Byron may 
experience a palingenesy, when " some ages are passed over." 
Puritanism was in its leading features an energetic assertion of 
the modern spirit, though marred by those inconsistencies and 
aberrations which are characteristic of all essential innovations 
upon established order and ancient precedent. Let us select 
1642 as a critical point in its development, and note the strange 
conveyence of events in that momentous year. In 1642, Gailileo 
dies, and Sir Isaac Newton is bom ; Richelieu, the great apostle 
of absolutism, is called to -his account, and the civil war, precipi- 
tated by the invincible perfidy and stupid obstinacy of Charles I, 
begins with the setting up of the royal standard at Nottingham. 
In all this complexity, we see the manifestation of the modem 
spirit, in the development of physical science by scholars and 
thinkers during the distractions of the civil war, in the vital issues 
involved in the great conflict, as well as in the breaking down of 
our ponderous syntax, and the dissolution of our " overflow- 
ing " stanza. The civil war of 1642-1646, was merely the first 
hostile phase of the struggle that transformed England from an 
absolute to a constitutional monarchy, the aims of the leading 
spirits in the Long Parliament, were essentially one with those 
that animated the less heroic men of 1688, who consummated 
the labors which the reformers of 1640-41, had only begun. 
Under these varying aspects of progressive life, political, sci- 
entific, literary, there prevails a unity of spirit, as impressive, as 
it is unmistakable. The entire political development of the 
seventeenth century from the assembling of the Long Parliament, 
1640, to the revolution of 1688, was critical or regulative in 
character, the revolution itself being a criticism of the constitu- 
tion, an endeavor to ascertain and fix in precise forms and 
definite propositions its scope and intent. The famous Bendey- 
Boyle controversy, was another exhibition of the dominant spirit. 
Even during the Restoration, when there was an apparently 
hopeless revulsion in favor of absolute monarchy, the action of 
the same progressive temper is clearly discernible. The student 
of Macaulay, Buckle, and Green, will require no confirmation 
of this statement. 

We hold then, that the transformation experienced by our 
prose and poetic style, for the breaking down of our ancient 
syntax and the dissolution of the old stanza, were analogous and 
coordinate movements, as Mark Pattison has pointed out, was 



154 Henry E. Shepherd, [1884-5. 

not the outcome of a satiated fancy, but rather one phase of the 
prevailing critical or rationalistic temper of the English intellect 
during the seventeenth century. Literary style participated in 
the general movement — it accommodated itself to the spirit of 
the incoming dispensation, for literature is " the artistic expres- 
sion of what men think and feel." The modern spirit has tended 
to obscure bold and well sustained individuality in literature, 
perhaps in some degree in all forms of human activity. With 
its disposition to substitute the general for the special, the ab- 
stract for the personal and the concrete, we discover the proba- 
ble explanation of the descent of the supreme monarchs of song, 
from their thrones. It was not so much reaction or satiety, as 
the dominion of a spirit that discouraged the colossal individ- 
uality of Shakespeare, and tolerated, if it did not foster, the 
common place and the mediocre. There is no just cause of 
astonishment, that with the extension of such a temper, Shake- 
speare should have suffered a partial eclipse during more than 
a century, and the terse but trite couplets of Pope should have 
become the recognized ideals of grace and elegance in poetic 
diction. Writers approached more nearly the average intelli- 
gence of their patrons, and a reading public, if not created, was 
at least stimulated by the popular tone of the discussion elicited 
during the revolution of 1688. It is the essentially common- 
place nature of so many of Pope's utterances, that has engrafted 
them so firmly upon the structure of our speech — contrast him 
with Milton in this regard. His popularity as a master of grace- 
ful and finished platitudes outlined the shock of the romantic 
revival that marked the closing decades of the eighteenth cen- 
tury. 

So far as Mr. Gosse's views in respect to the influence of the 
classical period upon our modern style, prose as well as poetic, 
are concerned, they contain a strong element of truth, perhaps 
not unmingled with error. The training to which our language 
was subjected during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, 
has probably exhibited its richest results in the " golden cadence" 
of Macaulay, most of whose tastes and sympathies identified 
him with the age of Pope and Addison, rather than with the 
men of his own era. Yet the olden creative fire seems to have 
been reproduced in Thomas Carlyle, whose style suggests no 
relation with the classic school, and reveals none of its influence. 
Even in the '' harping symphonies " of John Henry Newman, 



Vol. I.] From Shakespeare To Pope. 155 

whose English is the ripe outcome of the richest culture, there 
are occasional manifestations of the ancient spirit, the fervor and 
brilliancy of Milton and Taylor. Take, for example, his cele- 
brated passage upon the relation between the science of music 
and the spiritual life, and especially his farewell to the church of 
England. The fervid enthusiasm that marked the poetry of the 
romantic school, perpetuated itself in some of the noblest ex- 
pressions of our modern prose, indeed, no era has been richer 
than our own in what the late Principal Shairp so happily de- 
scribed as " prose-poets." That the romantic epoch ushered in 
at the close of the eighteenth century, being almost coincident 
in its origfin with the outbreak of the French revolution, did not 
degenerate into hysterical extravagance, is in great measure due 
to the conservative influence of the classical age, for so deep has 
been its impress upon our literary character, so salutary its re- 
straining power, that even in seasons of reaction and revolt, they 
have sufficed to prevent a mere Saturnalia, to guard against 
wantonness, and ridiculous excess. We part from Mr. Gosse's 
Lectures with a feeling of genuine regret. His graceful and 
pleasing treatment of his theme, cannot fail to commend him to 
the cordial regard of all students of our language and our liter- 
ary history. We trust that at some future day, he will afford 
us that broad, philosophic, and comparative exposition of his 
fascinating subject, of which we believe him to be eminently 
capable.